Kitrina Douglas & David Carless: Reflection on a journey into the unknown

It’s November in England’s most southerly and westerly county, Cornwall, home to wreckers and smugglers, sea mists and winter swells that break the hulls of vessels and undermine the strengths of cliffs. Of course, most of the vessels driven over savage rocks have long gone. Yet, their skeletons or exposed ribs can sometimes be spotted in odd coves or at low tide. At such times the more sensitive among us may feel an eerie chill imagining the screams of their victims, or their silence. There is no refuge on these shores.

On this morning two researchers stand watching the waves rising in a feathering peaks, each one arcing and spitting its force forward in a deafening explosion. The two researchers acknowledge the power, taste the salt spray on their faces, but today, they don’t suit-up in neoprene or enter the icy water with their flimsy fiberglass boards. No, they turn from the waves and drive toward a valley and a small, wooden village hall, protected, a mile back from where the winter swells thrust forward. In this refuge, among a small group of no more than thirty, they present their research, daring to share with those that took part in the research, and others like them, a performance of songs, poems and stories.

“Ooooh!” Mag smiles as they walk in with guitars ‘are we going to have music? I love music.’

From a lofty telegraph wire three crows keep vigil in silence as the two researchers unload equipment and carry it into the hall. For the past year they have been documenting the lives of women in their 60s 70s and 80s, in order to answer the questions posed by their funders, ‘what does physical activity mean to ‘older’ [a term they dislike] women?’ And they’ve struggled with how to keep the funders happy – funders who didn’t want poems, stories or songs, but rather a scientific missile to load into their policy cannon. So, they’ve struggled with how to share the precious gems passed on to them in looks, moves, silence, warm acceptance, sharing, sitting, watching, listening. And back they have gone, again and again, following the rising and falling of the tide, to invite, to look anew. Each researcher, then, in their own way, responded to the experience of living with these women’s stories in their body, and each responded in songs, poems and stories as a way to connect with, mark, resist, and walk on with these women and to invite others to walk with them all.

Arts based methodologies

It wasn’t an option, for us, to explore the potential of arts-based, performative and creative methodologies. Even from our earliest research forays we were struck and concerned with how much important information was being missed, eradicated and/or omitted by the research methods we had been using.

Midgley (2001, p. 83) notes ‘scientific concepts are not adapted to focusing on subjectivities… many of them have been carefully adapted to exclude it’.

At every stage of the research process, we felt there may be alternative ways of doing research that might embraces the importance of place, relationships, ambiguity and the relational dynamics that occurs during research or what participants were unable to say or communicate in words.

Over the years, the more we have read the more we’ve found that of course, we are not alone, others have been feeling this too. Across the social sciences researchers were exploring ways to preserve the multiplicity of human feeling we experience or witness through field research, and to communicate it without diminishing, devaluing or diluting its complexity or impact.

The importance of not going it alone

We began this journey during our doctoral research by sharing a few simple stories or poems with each other. From this we each gained encouragement to experiment with form – without rebuke or need to be “good”. We both believe it would be too difficult to move forward with arts-based research in most science departments without allies. Of course the real ‘test’ is sharing a poem or story with participants. Yet, it has been through the responses of other’s that we have come to understand how even our modest, unrefined early poems and stories were meaningful to participants and people like them. True, we don’t expect to win any literary prizes, but we aren’t trying to. What we are trying to do, as faithfully as possible, is communicate something we have been taught by participants. And perhaps this is where neophyte researchers or those inexperienced with arts-based research, get distracted by nagging question – “is it any good” and a voice of authority saying “you can’t do that!”


Or Who speaks?

From the shadows of
a collective consciousness
comes a voice
you can’t sing, dance, hum, clap a rhythm, write poetry, make music, it’s not science and you aren’t skilled

and the voice of silence replies,

I can’t sing
I have no rhythm
What beat?
I don’t suppose I can even write a story!

But I ask,

Do you accept this cloak too readily? How do you know you can’t sing?
That you have no rhythm?
On whose authority?

bubum, bubum, bubum

A heart beats for us, until, we have our own. Ultrasound!

What type of miracle is this?

Capturing a beating heart within a secret place
So, be ́be ́,

you come into being with a beat,

a rhythm,

with a soundscape,

rhythms that rise and fall,

who told you you have no rhythm?

Look to your heart.

(Douglas, 2017, p.103)

How do we communicate the things we can’t say? That stubbornly refused to be shaped into words. My body is more than one story, and others too have multiple stories written on, in, and through the body. Songs, it seems, hold story fragments that escape a temporal plot, and polar tension that co-exist. (Douglas, 2016, P.2)

When asked during my viva why I thought I was competent to write poetry, the answer I gave was not as reflective as it would be now. I suggested that I wrote poetry because I didn’t know I couldn’t. That is, I didn’t know one had to be a poet or songwriter to write a poem or sing a song.

MacIntyre (1981) reminds us that our lives are “always embedded in those communities” from which we derive our identity, and attempting to sever this tie “in the individualist mode” distorts and misrepresents our current self and relationships (pp. 205-206).

Fast forward a decade or two. We often experience arts-based research as a series of (challenging, disorienting, chaotic, exciting, enlightening or joyous) waves of engagement. Our wave metaphor provides a useful framing device to communicate the dynamic, reactive, powerful way that understandings, insights, and creative moments propel us through various phases of research. Reflecting on this engagement, we have come to understand that our preferred – and we believe most effective – ways of doing arts-based research are characterized by three waves of engagement. We consider each wave a quality or core process of arts-based research.

1: Interdependent Embodied Engagement with People and Place
It is not just the words captured by our digital recorders that tell the tale. Rather, our priority during fieldwork for arts-based research is to become a ‘sensing body’ – recognising that our bodies can support and hold the kinds of insights that words cannot readily communicate or encapsulate (see van der Kolk, 2014. The songs and films Gwithian Sands and These Things are examples of projects that drew heavily on these kinds of connections and understandings which, in our experience, are central to subsequent sense-making processes.

2: Aesthetic Engagement with Sense-Making Processes

A defining characteristic of this work is serious engagement with aesthetic processes. For Dewey (1989[1934], cited in Siegesmund, 2013), aesthetic inquiry privileges ‘felt sense’ (somatic, pre-linguistic, sensory experience) over logical, rational, scientific ways of knowing. This might be through writing a song following the stimulus of an interview with a particular participant, imaging a fictional story, or composing a poem on the basis of field notes generated through participant observation. All of these creative acts are ways of understanding lived experience, or moments in lives, and all, for us, require an aesthetic engagement with both form and content. Jørgensen (2013) suggested that aesthetic experience supports a free and harmonious interplay between understanding and imagination. This mirrors our experience: exploring empirical materials through aesthetic processes allows the inclusion of imagination in a way that expands, enriches and extends our understanding and communication. Through working aesthetically (whether it be creating poems, stories, artworks, songs, films or scripts), the wisdom of the body, mind and soul, it seems, can be awakened and revealed.

3: Emotional Engagement with – and of – Audiences

All of these stages are defined by a reciprocal dynamic that can be distilled to emotional engagement with and of audiences. However, they also reveal a further quality of arts-based research Barone and Eisner (2012) write that, ‘Only the compositions of artists and arts based researchers can redirect conversations about social phenomena by enabling others to vicariously re-experience the world’ (p. 20). Here, audiences are not only witnessing others’ experiences, but they are potentially having a related experience themselves. While other forms of representation can (and do) allow readers/audiences to consider or reflect on emotions, the opportunity for an audience to actually feel those emotions first hand is, in our experience, unique to arts-based and performative methodologies. As Barone and Eisner (2012) observe, vicarious experience can help audiences interrogate more fully the human condition, opening appreciation of alternative values and meanings across a range of social and psychological issues. Personal emotional engagement with and of audiences also facilitates a final stage as the ‘wave of engagement’ is passed onwards, outwards and upwards: from participants, to researchers, to audiences … and perhaps then even back to the lives of those whom the research serves.

Recent songs on video:

“Whirlpool” from the FCOSTE research project

“This Country” a response to Brexit

Recent publications
Douglas, K., & Carless, C. (ifirst) The Long Run: A Story About Filmmaking as Qualitative Research. Qualitative Inquiry.

Douglas, K., Carless, D., Milnes, K., Turner-Moore, T., Tan, J. & Laredo, E. (2019). Autoethnographies and new technologies of representation: An example from facilitating conversations on sexual topics in education, Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 25(6) 535–538

Douglas, K. (2019). Responding to Brexit through a Song: “This Country”. International Review of Qualitative Research, Volume 12(1) Spring 2019.


Douglas, K., & Carless, C. (2020). The Long Run: A Story About Filmmaking as Qualitative Research. Qualitative Inquiry. 26, (3-4)281-290

Douglas, K., Carless, D., Milnes, K., Turner-Moore, T., Tan, J. & Laredo, E. (2019). Autoethnographies and new technologies of representation: An example from facilitating conversations on sexual topics in education, Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 25(6) 535–538

Douglas, K. (2019). Responding to Brexit through a Song: “This Country”. International Review of Qualitative Research, Volume 12(1) Spring 2019.

Carless, D., Douglas, K., Milnes, K., &, Turner-Moore, T. (2919). Everyone knows me as the weird kid; Being bisexual, genderfluid, and fifteen. Qualitative Inquiry | First Published May 8, 2019

Douglas, K., & Carless, D. (2018). Engaging with Arts-Based Research: A Story in Three Parts. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 15, (2-3_, 156-172

Douglas, K. (2016) Song writing as reflexive practice: ‘Breathing too loud’ to ‘signals & signs’. Qualitative Inquiry. 22: 779-784.
Carless, D., & Douglas, K. (2016). Bringing Art Back to Psychology. Qualitative Methods in Psychology, (22), 6-12.

Carless, D., & Douglas, K. (2016). Bringing Art Back to Psychology. Qualitative Methods in Psychology, (22), 6-12.

Carless, D. & Douglas, K. (2016). Arts-based research in psychology: radical or conventional? The Psychologist. 29:350-353.

Carless, D., & Douglas, K. (2010). Performance Ethnography as an Approach to Health-Related Education. Educational Action Research, 18:3, 373–38.

Douglas, K., & Carless, D. (2013) An introduction to performative research. Methodological Innovations Online. 8(1) 1-15.

Carless, D., & Douglas, K . (2011). What’s in a song? How songs contribute to the communication of social science research. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. 1-16, iFirst.

Douglas, K. (2012). Signals and Signs. Qualitative Inquiry. 18(6), 525-532.

Midgley, M. (2001). Science and poetry. London: Routledge.

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